Digital Tape: Recreating Analog Signal Flow in the Box

In an earlier series, I wrote about the power of gain staging to structure your mix and shape your sound. I wanted to touch on that again and lay out a plugin chain that recreates an analog workflow. In short, it looks like this:

  • Clipper
  • VU Meter
  • Console Input Stage
  • Tape

You can use any of your favorite plugins for this, but below I’ll go through the ones I like and how I’m using them to shape the mix.

Clipper // TDR Limiter 6 ($60)

DAWs work in 32-bit floating point resolution, which means they’ll let you get away with murder as far as gain-staging goes. Placing a clipper first in the chain simulates how analog gear responds to peaks; come in too hot and it shaves them right off.

Keep in mind that if you’re gain-staging properly, you should only be clipping off a peak or two across the whole song; this is just a safety to catch the big spikes. Vocals and sustained instruments should’t be anywhere close to clipping; as such, I only use this on percussive tracks such as drums & slapped bass.

tdr

Limiter 6 is an incredible plugin, and a full-fledged mastering tool in its own right. Here, I’m just using one of its modules to clip off incoming peaks. You can tune it to focus on LF & HF content, and you can set a soft or a hard knee as desired; I usually set it to a -6dB threshold with a 2db knee. Continue reading “Digital Tape: Recreating Analog Signal Flow in the Box”

Editing Live Music Videos: Timing Your Cuts

I covered the macro aspects of editing in my previous post; check that out for my take on how to use subject, balance, distance & pacing to support the music. This is the micro side; zooming in on each cut to make sure it lands on the best frame. This is one of those things that makes a small difference individually, and a big difference across the whole video. When you nail your timing, the cuts flow seamlessly (sometimes invisibly) through the song, becoming another aspect that supports the performance rather than distracting from it. My cuts land on one of two cues; visual & audio.

Visual Cues

Visual cues are motions that draw the viewer’s attention, covering up the transition of a cut and maintaining the visual flow. Visual cues include:

  • a performer moving, turning, waving, nodding, jumping, etc.
  • a guitar strum, piano chord, drum hit, etc.
  • a light flare or lighting change
  • a camera pan or zoom

eric_2

Continue reading “Editing Live Music Videos: Timing Your Cuts”

Editing Live Music Videos: Recreating the Concert Experience

For me, editing a live music video is about recreating the performance through the eyes of the audience. Imagine you were the entire audience; not just one person, but everyone in the venue. What would your collective experience be? You’d be watching the performance from the front row, from the balcony, and from the crowd. Your focus would shift from the bassist to the lead singer, to the drummer as he laid down a fill, and to the people rocking out in the front. When I’m cutting together a live concert video, I’m trying to recreate that experience; bringing the viewer into the space and creating the feeling of being right there.

My second goal is to follow the music. The musicians are already telling a story through their words and notes; my job is to support & mirror all those elements. A bad edit will work against the music, cutting out of time and focusing on the wrong subjects. A good edit flows with the beat, amplifying the hits & emotional energy of the music. When I’m putting the edit together, I’m focusing on four elements; subject, balance, distance, & pacing.

Subject

Editing live music videos is mostly a pragmatic process; my main goal is just to focus on the most interesting element at any moment. On my first pass, I’ll go through all the  different angles and pick out the best moments from each (I’ll also cut out any uninteresting or unusable footage). For the lead singer, I’ll pick out the verses & choruses. For the guitarist, I’ll pick out riffs that stand out and any solo sections. For the drummer, drum fills; and so on.

carli_1

In my second pass, I’ll go through and pick the most interesting moments from all the angles combined. At this point, I’ve got a good starting point to build my edit from. Continue reading “Editing Live Music Videos: Recreating the Concert Experience”

Breakdowns: How Much Does a Live Music Video Cost?

I’ve been studying Alex Chaloff’s music videos recently, as they’re incredible examples of live music captures. It’s a testament to his work that even though I’m taking notes on camera angles, lighting, and sound all the way through, I can’t help but get lost in the performances.

Part of breaking down these videos is figuring out how much it might cost to put together a production like this. That’s helpful for me as it puts my rates into context; it’s also helpful for my clients to understand what goes into creating a video at this level.

There’s two parts to the cost of a production; kit fees and labor costs. Kit fees cover the equipment, and labor covers the efforts of everyone involved. $600 is a standard day rate for studios & camera ops here in CO, so I’ll use that for my estimates. As for the kit, a standard rate is 1% of its value per day. Let’s start with a minimal shoot like this one:

Continue reading “Breakdowns: How Much Does a Live Music Video Cost?”

Digital Film: Cleaning Up 8-Bit Footage

I shoot with the Sony a7S II, and I’m really happy with the images it produces. Unfortunately, it’s also limited by a codec which restricts it to 8-bit, low data rate video capture. In the real world, this manifests as digital artifacts that reduce the resolution of your footage and make it harder to color grade. I use the process below to clean up my footage before editing, but I’d recommend this workflow for any 8-bit video or footage with visible noise.

Denoise

Digital noise is one of the biggest obstacles to high-quality video. Whereas analog noise can be aesthetically pleasing, digital noise looks cheap and pixelated. It’s a combination of the noise of your camera sensor (created by amplifying light, more prevalent at higher ISO values) and the artifacts created by the codec (created by compression, more prevalent at low data rates). A high-quality denoiser can make a world of difference on your footage; I’m using Neat Video, and I’ve been really impressed by its capabilities. Here’s a dramatic example (click here for full-size):

Split A Continue reading “Digital Film: Cleaning Up 8-Bit Footage”

Digital Film: Understanding Codecs

Codecs are one of the last things I wrapped my head around when I got into video; it’s not exactly an engaging subject, and all the technical terms can be overwhelming. But depending on the camera, your codec can be a real limiting factor. Overall, I’m really happy with my a7S II’s. The full-frame sensor, lens system, dynamic range, and overall image quality are incredible. But no system’s perfect, and the weakest point of the a7SII the codec. So let’s figure out how to work with it.

To put it simply, a codec is a file format. There’s a DVD codec, a Blu-Ray codec, a YouTube codec; all the media you watch has been encoded into a format that fits the playback system. Consumer codecs are fairly standardized, but when you’re on the professional side, there are a huge range of options to choose from (hence the confusion). Luckily, despite the vast number of individual codecs out there, the principles are pretty simple. Frame rate (frames per second) and resolution (number of pixels) are easy to understand, and both are set by the camera before you press record. The main factors controlled by the codec are bit rate and bit depth.

Continue reading “Digital Film: Understanding Codecs”

Gear Talk: Resolve 14 vs. Premiere Pro CC

resolve

I’ve been using Adobe Premiere since I first started editing (nearly ten years ago), but I’ve been curious about Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve. With version 14 hot off the presses, I thought I’d dive in, give it a spin and see if it could replace Premiere as my go-to NLE. After 12 hours (straight), here are my thoughts:

Editing

Premiere

Your ability to edit depends more on your familiarity with the NLE than the software itself, and as it’s a pretty standardized process, you won’t find major differences between programs. With both Premiere & Resolve, I was able to cut together a multicam within an hour or so of messing around; no need to open up a manual. But if you go beyond basic edits, Premiere shows its pedigree; its tools are more refined and offer more options for power users.

Continue reading “Gear Talk: Resolve 14 vs. Premiere Pro CC”

Digital Tape: Gain-Staging Drums

Note: the following post makes use of Klanghelm VUMT and TDR Limiter 6. To get the most out of these posts, head over to their sites and support some awesome developers!


drums

In our last post we covered how to apply analog gain-staging practices to melodic material. However, our ears respond much differently to percussive material, which is composed of transients instead of tones.

ppm

A PPM meter responds much more quickly to level changes, and as such it’s better suited to drums and percussion. Using VUMT, pull up a DIN meter and apply it to a snare or kick track. Adjust the pre-fader clip volume so that the needle is reading a little under 0.

Here’s an example of a snare track after I’ve adjusted the gain:

snare

You’ll notice that while the hits are fairly consistent, there are couple hits around the 1/3rd mark that are much louder than the rest. In our last post, we dealt with this problem by manually adjusting the volume; while this is a completely valid approach, it’s not always an option to go through hundreds of hits by hand. Instead, let’s take an analog approach. Continue reading “Digital Tape: Gain-Staging Drums”

Digital Tape: Gain-Staging Vocals

Note: the following post makes use of Klanghelm VUMT, an incredible plugin that costs about $15 USD. To get the most out of these posts, head over to the site and support an awesome developer!


vocals

Hugh Robjohns begins his article on VU & PPM meters with the following quote:

These are both, strictly speaking, obsolete analogue metering formats! In short, the VU meter shows an averaged signal level and gives an impression of perceived loudness, while a PPM indicates something closer to the peak amplitude of the input signal. However, in our modern digital world, neither meter really performs adequately.

He has a point; if you’re mastering for broadcast, you want a digital meter that’s able to respond with pinpoint accuracy. However, I’d like to focus on part of that quote:

The VU meter … gives an impression of perceived loudness.

While digital meters do a great job of letting you know if your signal is clipping, they don’t correlate much with what you’re actually hearing. One of the reasons people love mixing outside the box is that analog meters move the way the music does. So let’s set up some analog meters.

meter

Klanghelm VUMT is my favorite meter plugin, and it has far more features than we’ll need today. For now, just bring it up as a simple VU meter and apply it to a vocal track. Adjust the track volume (pre-fader) in the DAW so that the meter is reading around 0VU for sustained vocal phrases. Continue reading “Digital Tape: Gain-Staging Vocals”

Digital Tape: Analog Gain-Staging in the Box

gear

In my opinion, gain-staging is the most important step of the mix process. Properly preparing your audio sets the foundation for your mix; unfortunately, this step is often neglected or misunderstood. So in the hopes of simplifying this process, I’m starting a series of short posts on how to apply analog mixing practices to the digital domain.

One of the biggest differences between analog & digital is the way the equipment responds to level. When recording through tape & tube equipment, there’s a sweet spot in the middle of the range where fidelity and signal-to-noise is optimized. Get the level too low and your signal gets lost in hiss; get the level too high and it’ll distort. 24-bit digital is an entirely different picture; get the level too low and it’s not much of a problem, as long as your peaks aren’t clipping. Compounding this problem is the fact that digital meters don’t do the best job of representing what we actually hear.

Because we’re not fighting for a smaller sweet spot, we tend to be more relaxed when it comes to gain-staging in the digital world. This is fine for recording, but it creates big problems when you enter the mix stage, because:

  • if your levels aren’t consistent, your faders won’t be representative of the actual mix.
  • if you have multiple tracks that are close to peaking, they’ll clip your master bus when combined.
  • saturation, distortion, and analog-emulation plugins are level-dependent just like analog gear.

What we want is tracks whose levels are consistent in relation to each other, high enough to optimize signal-to-noise, low enough to leave plenty of headroom on the master bus, and gain-staged for use with analog emulations. How do we do this? Read on.

>> Digital Tape, Pt. 2: Gain-Staging Vocals